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Sunday, March 09, 2008 

Human Rights Watch gives a voice to the un-oppressed

I'll start this by saying that I have had a long-running campaign against Human Rights Watch, academically and on this blog.

HRW is an overwhelmingly American organisation - the vast majority of its membership, employees and offices are in the US. It contributes to the imbalance in NGOs working in the developing world - overall 89% of NGOs and their workers are Western. Only 11% are from the developing world.

So would it surprise you to learn that at the HRW Film Festival, which starts in London this week, only TWO of their 25 films come from the developing world (and one of those is from Eastern Europe).

More than half of the films come from the West - most of those from America. And a handful are mixed western-developing world productions.

I am prepared to accept that many developing world filmmakers need assistance from the west. But still, only nine of their films have ANY involvement at all from developing world.

This is a film festival of movies by Westerners for Westerners. They've picked cinemas in Notting Hill and Greenwich, just so the privileged don't have to drive their Mercedes far.

In case you care, my thesis was on the normative role of NGOs in the developing world. Put crudely, Western NGOs - with HRW leading the way - are unwitting vehicles for the export of Western morals and values. (And, no, it wasn't that tired argument about cultural sensitivity and the universality of human rights. Some human rights really are universal. Female genital mutilation and torture can't be explained away by 'tradition'.)

Hi Sasa,
Interesting points.
You think it's possible to get a copy of your thesis? I would be interested in reading more on the issue you're raising.


You are absolutely right that Western NGOs and their employees will have intrinsic biases in the way they view the rest of the world. But there many reasons why most NGOs are Western aren't there? I am interested to know what you think those reasons are. Also what's your take on the recent establishment of the Arab Human Rights Fund in Beirut? http://www.ahrfund.org/


i don't really agree with your analysis!

the synopsis of the films seem to speak for good work by the selection comittee. the issues covered are quite representative, and seem to do a good coverage of their issues. a whole lot of the filmmakers are from the third world (satrapi, Makhmalbaf, dorfmann, Johnson, Aractingi is lebanese, these are people i am sure of, some of the others i am not certain). most of the other films deal with issues from the third world.

i find the cultural life in western urban centers to be quite rich. here in germany it is quite possible for those willing, to experience culture from all over the globe. please take a look at the program of a place like the house of world cultures, were the program DI/VISIONS was only the latest in a series of large events that take place every year (2005 had Israel: Dream and Trauma).

just to name a single event from the last two years, the hamburger bahnhof museum in berlin dedicated a whole exhibition to the atlas group. it ran paralell to an exhibition of josef beuys, one of the most important of german 20th century artists.

i think that it is only fair to say that many of the productions from the third world are co-produced by western institutions. i would totally agree that it is too little, but would still think of that some western cultural institutions play a positive role through their work. also, please remember that you have here a small, but quite influential minority, that wants to see these kinds of works.

as to your thesis (which i would like to ask you to expand on!), of the unwitting role of the ngo's, i think that many of the ngos have the mission of spreading western values (though i would really argue on describing these values as western) embeded in their rules. but this is really not the issue, i would like to hear more about your thesis!


Yazan, thanks - you've planted the idea in my head of putting part of my thesis on here. I'll try to make time in the next few weeks.

Abu Kareem - I don't know enough about the Arab Human Rights Fund to comment on them. But I hope it's a local-grown organisation. That's exactly what we need in the Arab world. The problem is that because our states occupy so much space, there isn't enough room for civil society. So you get Non-Governmental Organisations which are actually Governmental Organisations (like most Syrian NGOs - with the notable exception of the SHRC). In Lebanon, there isn't just one state, but many competing states, which again take up civil society space. So many NGOs are affiliated to a political movement.

Palestine (pre-Oslo) is the only exception in the Arab world - precisely because there was no state! So NGOs assumed the role of the state. I'll explain more soon!

Abu Hazem - the issues in the films may be representative, but the majority are spoken with a Western voice. My issue is with THIS film festival, and this organisation (Human Rights Watch). I agree, cultural life in many western cities is fantastic. Just two weeks ago there was an Arab/Iranian/Turkish film festival in London which was inspirational - I'll write more about that too.

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About me

  • Written by sasa
  • From Damascus, Syria
  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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